Dennis Cassinelli: Sutro Tunnel compared to the Carlin Tunnels

In my long career at the Nevada Department of Transportation, I was involved with one of the largest tunnel projects ever attempted in Nevada. This was when I was a field engineer in the construction office at NDOT in the 1970s. At that time, I made payments to the various contractors and prepared the final reports on contracts as they were completed. Jim Cress came in to work with me in the construction office until the Carlin Tunnels project was ready to start.

Cress, a registered mining engineer, was then appointed to be the resident engineer on the Carlin Tunnels project, the largest project ever done by NDOT up to that time, at more than $10 million. As the project progressed, I made the monthly payments to the contractor, Lockheed Shipbuilding Co. The reason a shipbuilding contractor was the low bidder was the complex steel arch that was constructed to support the top of the tunnel was basically the shape of an upside-down steel hull of a ship. Other subcontractors were used to do the excavating and concrete contractors covered the steel frame with concrete and others placed the lining for the interior of the tunnel. Today, traffic through the twin Interstate 80 tunnels is 10,000 vehicles per day.

During construction of the project, I made several field trips to Carlin and was allowed to tour the double-tube tunnels as they were under construction. Assistant resident engineer Jim Dodson took me inside the tunnels, both when they were under construction and later when they were nearly completed. After final completion of the tunnels on Sept. 25, 1975, I wrote the NDOT final report for the project, itemizing the quantities used and then later I made the final payment to the contractor.

The second large tunnel project I have been involved with is the Sutro Tunnel and the efforts to preserve, protect and restore what remains of the town of Sutro and to eventually make the Sutro Tunnel safe for visitors to enjoy. I first visited the Sutro Tunnel and the town of Sutro in 1960. Adolph Sutro was the owner, contractor and financier who designed and supervised construction of the 3.8-mile tunnel. It was excavated from Dayton and ended 1,640 feet beneath Virginia City. Lateral tunnels were excavated to connect the main tunnel to the major mines along the Comstock Lode. Unfortunately, even though the tunnel did drain and ventilate the mines, it was completed too late to serve the Comstock mines as expected.

The tunnels eventually cost more than $5 million to construct and took nine years to complete. Sutro was able to sell off his stock in the tunnel before he left for San Francisco, never to return. I recently have joined the Friends of Sutro Tunnel to help where I can as a publicist and to encourage the public to contribute or help whenever possible.

Recently, the sesquicentennial of the start of work on the Sutro Tunnel was celebrated in Carson City. It was on Oct. 19, 1869, that work was first started on the tunnel. The date is recorded on the portal structure where the tunnel begins in Dayton. Perhaps one day the tunnel can be made safe enough for people to ride through the tunnel and take an elevator to the surface in Virginia City as Gen. Grant and his family did in 1879. Currently, the tunnel is unsafe for anyone to enter. A great deal of work must be done to replace 150-year old timbers, remove soil from past cave-ins and get certification that the tunnel has been made safe enough to enter again. All of this work is being done by the Friends of Sutro Tunnel volunteers.

This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at All Cassinelli’s books sold through this publication will be at a discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.


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